Some – but only some – of the rise in divorce looks real

The Mail and Times are both reporting the latest Office for National Statistics figures on divorces in England & Wales for 2021, up 9.6%

The Mail and Times are both reporting the latest Office for National Statistics figures on divorces in England & Wales for 2021, up 9.6% on 2020.

My first thoughts about this are that this is an anomaly, as I said in my quote in the print version of the Mail. The ONS statistician warns about this in their release: “It is important to remember that divorces in both 2020 and 2021 may have been affected by disruption to family court activities because of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on divorce applications”.

We have seen little to no early indication of a big rise in 2021 divorces either from the lockdown surveys that look at how much people are thinking about divorce or the Ministry of Justice figures that report divorce applications. We wrote a report on this here.

So is any of this 9.6% rise due to an underlying problem with marriages or merely problems with the divorce system?

One way of looking at it is to recognise that almost all changes in divorce rates over the past 40 years have come from divorces granted to wives rather than husbands. This system changed in April 2022 but it gives us a way of seeing if there’s any real change.

You can see this in the chart below. Whereas husband granted divorces have remained remarkably steady at around 40-44,000 per year, wife granted divorces have dropped from over 100,000 in the 1980s and 1990s to 56,000 in 2018 and now up to 70,000. My argument has always been that this fall in wife granted divorces reflects less social pressure to marry and therefore the men who do marry are more committed.

So if the recent rise is all about the system, we should see fluctuations in the husband divorces in the last few years. You can see evidence of that in the next chart. In recent years, both husband and wife granted divorces have moved up and down in tandem.

It’s only when I smooth out the effects of system change by showing the average trend in divorces over three years that it’s immediately apparent something is afoot. Wife divorces over three years are up by 5,000/year equivalent to a 7.6% rise whereas husband divorces are up by 2,000/year equivalent to a 5.9% rise.

So the real change in divorce due to marriage issues and not system issues is probably nearer to 1.5%-2% out of the 9.6%.

I admit this is a fairly speculative calculation but I stress that we really haven’t seen any advance warning of a big rise like this.

The big trend since the 1990s is the reduction in divorce rates that I attribute to reduced social pressure for men to marry. Those who do marry are more committed and hence fewer unhappy wives …

So the big question is whether this trend has reached the end of its cycle. Divorce rates are now back to 1970s levels. Maybe that’s where they will now stay. So changes to divorce rates from now on simply reflect a bit of random variation.

Is that all there is to it?


Harry Benson, research director, 3 November 2022




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